These Are the Impressive Winners of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize

All grassroots activists, these individuals are clearly deserving of the honor.

Alexandra Narvaez on patrol
Prize winner Alexandra Narvaez and Holger Quenamá conducting a patrol on the Aguarico River, Ecuador.

Goldman Environmental Prize

The Goldman Environmental Prize has been called the "Green Nobel." The prestigious award is given out each year to grassroots environmental leaders from the world's six inhabited continents. Grassroots is defined as people involved in local efforts, "where positive change is created through community or citizen participation." These individuals are, of course, the ones who need financial support and public exposure more than established organizations, and the Goldman Prize offers precisely that.

It was established in 1989 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman and the first-ever award ceremony took place in April 1990. The couple hoped that the Prize would "demonstrate the international nature of environmental problems" and draw global support for pressing issues. It would hopefully encourage others to follow in the winners' admirable footsteps and pursue their own projects.

This year's winners were honored in a virtual ceremony held on May 25. It was hosted by actor and environmental activist Jane Fonda and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, with appearances by primatologist Jane Goodall, Grammy-winning singer Angelique Kidjo, and the Detroit Youth Choir. The winners' impressive work spans a range of environmental issues, as you will see in the descriptions below.

Nalleli Cobo, United States

Nalleli Cobo
Nalleli Cobo.

Tamara Leigh Photography / Goldman Environmental Prize

In 2020, at the age of 19, Nalleli Cobo led a coalition to permanently shut down a toxic oil-drilling site in her Los Angeles community. The AllenCo drilling site, located 30 feet from Cobo's home, had generated toxic fumes for years, causing Cobo and others to suffer from nosebleeds, headaches, heart palpitations, and other pollution-related health problems. She was diagnosed with cancer as a teenager.

Such urban oil wells are common around Los Angeles and are disproportionately located in Black and Latino neighborhoods. As part of the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Cobo won a lawsuit that accused Los Angeles of environmental racism. This paved the way for major changes to the city's oil extraction policies. Twenty-four of AllenCo's executives now face charges for violating environmental health and safety, and L.A. County's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in 2021 to ban new oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county and to examine the status of existing ones.

Marjan Minnesma, the Netherlands

Marjan Minnesma
Marjan Minnesma.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Tireless campaigner Marjan Minnesma pioneered a unique legal strategy to secure a successful ruling against the Dutch government that forced it to take climate action seriously. It took her years of work and hundreds of speeches to mobilize the public, but Minnesma persisted with her message that the government was "putting Dutch citizens in harm's way due to its inaction on climate change, and that it has a legal obligation—'duty of care'—to protect them."

The ruling, which was finally upheld in 2019 and forced the government to cut emissions by a quarter below 1990 levels by the end of 2020, was described by Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, as "the strongest decision ever issued by any court in the world on climate change, and the only one that has actually ordered reductions in greenhouse gas emissions based on constitutional grounds." The precedent that Minnesma set is now inspiring activists around the world.

Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitante, Ecuador

Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez
Alex Lucitante and Alexandra Narvaez.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitante are two young members of the Cofán community in rural Ecuador. Both felt a deep connection to their ancestral land, which comprises 79,000 acres of primary rainforest frequently threatened by illegal logging, mining, and poaching.

When the Ecuadorian government issued numerous large-scale mining concessions within Cofán territory without consulting its inhabitants, Narvaez and Lucitante launched a coordinated campaign to protect their land. After collecting images, drone footage, and maps, they launched a lawsuit that was successful, setting a legal precedent that will protect the Cofán region from all future gold mining.

Niwat Roykaew, Thailand

Niwat Roykaew
Niwat Roykaew.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Niwat Roykaew, known as Kru Thi ("teacher" in Thai), is a schoolteacher who created a grassroots campaign powerful enough to stop the Chinese and Thai governments from blasting 248 miles of the Mekong River to make way for 500-ton cargo ships. The river, which flows 3,000 miles from the Tibetan mountains to the South China Sea, is second only to the Amazon in freshwater biological diversity and its floodplains provide a livelihood to 65 million people.  

Upon learning of the project, Kru Thi launched a years-long campaign against it, relying on local communities, fishermen, academics, media, NGOs, citizen scientists, and civil society groups to gain the attention of the developers and politicians. He was successful in 2020 when the project was officially abandoned. It was a rare and important win that marked the first time the Thai government has canceled a transboundary project because of its environmental destructiveness. 

Julien Vincent, Australia

Julien Vincent
Julien Vincent.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Julien Vincent is on a mission to defund coal in Australia. With his country experiencing the direct effects of climate change through devastating bushfires and mass coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef, Vincent felt that tackling coal—the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—would be the best place to start. Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coal in terms of value, second biggest in volume, and Newcastle, New South Wales, is the biggest coal export port.

Through his organization Market Forces (MF), Vincent started by asking banks to stop funding coal projects. He "combined monetary arguments (coal investments will be stranded assets) with personal appeals (think of the future for your grandkids)." MF ran billboards and full-page ads and social media campaigns to get the public on board. In 2019 the first insurance company said it would stop underwriting coal projects. It was followed by two more insurers and four banks, forever changing Australia's energy landscape.

Chima Williams, Nigeria

Chima Williams
Chima Williams.

Goldman Environmental Prize

Chima Williams is an environmental lawyer who has managed to do something that nobody has done before—hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for oil spills that occurred in the Niger Delta under its subsidiary company. This will have the unprecedented effect of "opening Shell to legal action from communities across Nigeria devastated by the company's disregard for environmental safety."

Nigeria, a country whose exports are mainly comprised of crude oil, is the 13th largest oil producer in the world. While some people have profited enormously from this, many more have seen their homeland devastated by shoddy infrastructure and insufficient oversight. Every year, 240,000 barrels of crude are spilled from pipelines and wells into the Delta, contaminating water, crops, animals, and humans living nearby. Williams' victory holds Shell accountable in a radical new way and offers a much-needed glimmer of hope to this oil-ravaged part of the world.

View Article Sources
  1. "Overview of the Prize." The Goldman Environmental Prize.